Monday, November 7, 2011

Richard Feynman on the female mind

From a talk given in 1966 at the National Science Teachers Association:
When I was at Cornell, I was rather fascinated by the student body, which seems to me was a dilute mixture of some sensible people in a big mass of dumb people studying home economics, etc. including lots of girls. I used to sit in the cafeteria with the students and eat and try to overhear their conversations and see if there was one intelligent word coming out. You can imagine my surprise when I discovered a tremendous thing, it seemed to me. 
I listened to a conversation between two girls, and one was explaining that if you want to make a straight line, you see, you go over a certain number to the right for each row you go up--that is, if you go over each time the same amount when you go up a row, you make a straight line--a deep principle of analytic geometry! It went on. I was rather amazed. I didn't realize the female mind was capable of understanding analytic geometry.  
She went on and said, "Suppose you have another line coming in from the other side, and you want to figure out where they are going to intersect. Suppose on one line you go over two to the right for every one you go up, and the other line goes over three to the right for every one that it goes up, and they start twenty steps apart," etc.--I was flabbergasted. She figured out where the intersection was. It turned out that one girl was explaining to the other how to knit argyle socks. I, therefore, did learn a lesson: The female mind is capable of understanding analytic geometry. Those people who have for years been insisting (in the face of all obvious evidence to the contrary) that the male and female are equally capable of rational thought may have something. The difficulty may just be that we have never yet discovered a way to communicate with the female mind. If it is done in the right way, you may be able to get something out of it.

26 comments:

  1. I am reminded of that Cosmides-Tooby experiment where they got people to perform surprisingly well on logical tasks that were phrased in terms of beer etc. http://scholar.google.com/scholar?q=cosmides+tooby+wason&oe=utf-8&rls=org.mozilla:en-US:official&client=firefox-a&um=1&ie=UTF-8&hl=en&sa=N&tab=ws

    (I've never believed their big-picture inferences but the empirically observed pattern is, I believe, robust.)

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  2. The weirdness of this quotation is fascinating. It also goes a long way to prove that true enough, communication of any kind is something that may not yet have been achieved.

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  3. Yes, I can't tell how much irony/awareness is going on. Wasn't Feynman kind of a ladykiller? Did I make that up? I don't know if he was still a misogynist when he said this or just looking back (with a fondness) on the misogyny of his younger days.

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  4. I don't think Feynman ever stopped either being a misogynist or pretending to be one; it definitely never ceased to be part of his shtick.

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  5. I love (sarcastically, of course) the "we" of his not-so-implied audience.

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  6. i think u gotta fight fire with fire, all u gals should go malcolm x with some sexism of your own. you gotta hit em where it hurts and then people will pay attention.

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  7. A lot of people already think feminism is sexist.

    I feel like there's a similar thing going on to "Women can't do math" with women (and men) thinking "Men can't clean" so men never learn to even, like, notice when things are dirty. Clearly conditioned, not innate.

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  8. disagree, i think men not noticing dirtiness is to some degree innate.

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  9. Why on earth would that be innate?

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  10. I mean some men are actually clean freaks. Just not the ones I've lived with.

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  11. i'm sure we can dream up plausible evo-type arguments if that's what you're into. men also tend to prefer eating meat and potatoes. don't get me started.

    so your personal experience jives. done and done! that's a wrap

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  12. tend to prefer more than women that is, re m&p.

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  13. There's no reason to think that's not just conditioned/societal.

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  14. It's not either-or, nature and nurture are both important. I'll never understand the desire to reduce everything to nurture. If one observes statistical differences between genders, there is no reason to think that nature is not part of the equation. It plainly is in many cases. So why get up in arms? There is no slippery slope here people.

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  15. There is plenty of reason to get up in arms! If everyone keeps assuming that gender difference are innate, then nothing gets done, nothing ever changes, people will continue to believe that women can't be surgeons or mathematicians or President. I'm not trying to reduce EVERYTHING to nurture, but overreliance on the nature argument is definitely part of the problem. People used to think the poor were inherently stupid and lazy and dirty (oh wait, a lot of conservatives still think that).

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  16. don't go tarrin everybody with the same brush. i preferred hilary over obama. you don't do your side a favor by exaggerating the case.

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  17. Four comments ago you said I needed to go "Malcolm X," make up your mind.

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  18. oh yeah, shit, you got me. okay, well, in that case, malcolm x is the way to go! fuck em if they can't take a joke!

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  19. there are two kinds of people: the kind who leave dirty dishes in non-dining areas (bedrooms, living rooms) and those who recoil in horror at the sight of this. i'm one of the latter.

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  20. I can't even understand people who put dirty dishes in the sink without rinsing them. Like the mere act of placing them in the sink does something to prevent food from adhering to the surface.

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  21. I always wash any dishes in the sink, although Lorraine prefers to leave dishes there. But the general tendency around our house is that I start cleaning when things get too cluttered, but she starts cleaning when things get too dirty.

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  22. Yeah, I'm sort of a neat freak, but not a clean freak. I don't like junk piled everywhere, but I don't get down on my hands and knees and scrub the floor or anything.

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  23. oh yeah, shit, you got me. okay, well, in that case, malcolm x is the way to go! fuck em if they can't take a joke!

    November 9, 2011 6:16 PM

    Elisa said...
    Right on.

    I love the above xchange: it's an epitome of dramatic and mellow and the switchback between heated and congenial is delightful!

    I think men and women are, naturally, not all that, nature-wise, different, and that emphasizing the difference can be problematic: make aliens where naturally one cld assume closer to kinship. I definitely believe the socialization is different. And in bad, asymetrical ways; though the minute I bring lesbians into the picture this changes rather radically; I am currently working with a Hetero axis.

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  24. Adam, yes, I was glad/impressed we brought the intensity levels down so quickly and effortlessly. :)

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  25. @Elisa ...consideres all ladies as poor (the terminology she used) no wonder shec onsideres them as inherently stupid ... to quote from Umberto eco's foucults pendulum' they(she) inert and insensitive to the thrill of infinite ... i
    used it just as a aphorism

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